Provincial governments should strengthen—not weaken—standardized testing in schools

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Appeared in the National Post, March 29, 2022
Provincial governments should strengthen—not weaken—standardized testing in schools

Imagine you went to your optometrist’s office for your yearly eye exam. After asking a few questions and looking into your eyes, the optometrist declares that everything looks fine and you’re free to go after paying $100.

Would you be satisfied with that assessment? Probably not. That’s because professional optometrists rely on more than their subjective judgment when conducting eye exams. They use calibrated instruments, official eye charts and standardized procedures to ensure they come to an accurate conclusion about your sight.

In other words, standardization doesn’t weaken an optometrist’s professionalism, it strengthens it. The same is true in other professions including education, which is why standardized testing remains a vital—but largely missing—element of the Canadian education system.

What are standardized tests? Essentially, they’re administered with consistent instructions, written by all students at the same time and within the same time limit, and scored in the same manner. When properly designed and administered, these tests provide schools, students and parents with an objective measurement of student proficiency and the education system’s overall health.

Both teacher-created tests, which are more subjective, and standardized tests, which are more objective, are essential for a balanced approach to student assessment. Teacher-created tests allow teachers to account for individual student circumstances while standardized tests make it possible to determine whether provincial curriculum standards have been met. Both tests are important, like your optometrist using both subjective judgement and objective tests to assess your eyes.

Unfortunately, due largely to three specific trends, standardized testing is on the decline in Canada.

First, standardized tests today place less emphasis on subject-specific knowledge than they once did. Instead, most tests now focus on generic literacy and numeracy skills. This approach assumes that literacy and numeracy are easily transferable skills. But in reality, these skills are heavily dependant on content.

For example, there’s a strong causal relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension. Students will struggle to read an article if they know nothing about the topic, but have little difficulty reading a book or article when they possess considerable background knowledge about the topic (e.g. students better comprehend history when they are familiar with key people involved). Thus, it’s important to immerse students in content-rich learning environments because they need background knowledge in many things before they can become functioning citizens in society. By failing to measure content knowledge, modern-day standardized tests fail to measure a key (perhaps the most important) thing, so there’s little incentive for teachers to help students acquire the background knowledge they need to be successful citizens.

The second concerning trend is that standardized tests in Canada are not given the same value as in the past. In many provinces, standardized tests (other than those written in Grade 12) often do not count towards students’ final grades. Even in provinces where they do count, the percentage value of these tests has steadily declined. Consequently, students and teachers are less likely to take these tests seriously.

Finally, standardized tests are administered less often and at fewer grade levels than they once were, particularly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan where standardized tests have practically disappeared.

To make matters worse, a number of provinces halted the administration of standardized tests over the past two years during the pandemic. While this was intended to be a temporary pause, it won’t be easy to go back to normal, particularly since teacher unions across Canada continue to lobby hard against these tests. They would like nothing more than to get rid of these tests entirely, leaving student grades dependent on subjective assessments. Clearly, provincial governments should place a stronger emphasis on standardized testing. For our students to compete successfully with students from around the world, they must obviously be well-educated.

We expect medical professionals such as optometrists to use standardized instruments and procedures when assessing their patients. We should expect no less from our education professionals.

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